It is just over a year since Poland’s Law and Justice Party (PiS) came to power in an election that had severe consequences for free and independent media in the country.

Elected on the promise of “good change” the PiS has, among other things, limited the public’s right to assembly, expanded the scope of the state’s surveillance mechanisms and overlooked laws dictating the functioning of the country’s highest court, resulting in an ongoing constitutional crisis.

The Polish media has also had a particularly tough 2016. Last year we wrote numerous reports on the state takeover of Poland’s public broadcaster and its reform into a nationalist mouthpiece.

The reforms included a law that allows the treasury minister to directly appoint the heads of public radio and television as well as the dismissal of hundreds of journalists and media workers throughout the year. The changes contributed to a series of protests in May, one of which drew up to a quarter of a million people onto the streets of Warsaw.

On the 17th December a new set of protests took place in the capital – despite recent crackdowns by the government – again in defence of a free and independent media. This time protesters gathered outside the Presidential Palace in response to government plans to restrict journalists’ access to the Sejm (parliament) by banning “all recording of sessions except by five selected TV stations” as well as placing a limit on the number of journalists allowed to enter the building, according to Reuters.

The proposed changes also required journalists to work away from the main plenary chamber in a designated media centre. Historically journalists have been allowed to freely wander the common areas of parliament whilst multiple TV crews film the chamber.

The proposals initially caused dozens of opposition parliamentarians to occupy the speaker’s podium during a vote on the country’s budget, whilst holding placards reading “Free media in the Sejm”. This led the government to ban journalists from the Sejm and hold “an illegal” vote in a smaller hall without the presence of the press.

On 20th December the PiS scrapped its ban on journalists due to its divisive nature and as a response to the protests. However, according to Reuters the Sejm’s press office failed to withdraw proposals to change media access to parliament, saying that rules were still likely to change:

“We want, however, to give an assurance that these changes will not be introduced without broad consultations and agreements with reporters”.

As it stands the proposed rules are yet to be debated, with Sejm due to return in mid-January.

Effective democracies rely on a free press and access to parliament for journalists to document decision-making and hold politicians to account on behalf of the public. The Public Media Alliance urges the Polish government (PiS) to maintain broad access to parliament for journalists and uphold the democratic principles of a free press.

By Kristian Porter

Header image: Sign used to protest for “Free media” at protests in Poland in January 2017. Credits: Jaap Arriens/Creative Commons